In 1782, an unknown French engineer offered his government an invention better than radar: the ability to detect ships at distances of up to 700 miles. There were many who said that his ideas worked. But was Étienne Bottineau a genius, a fantasist or a fraud?
The wizard of Mauritius
October 13, 2011 by Mike Dash
Pretty much nobody has heard of nauscopie these days. But two centuries ago, this long-forgotten “science of detecting ships and land at a distance” was the subject of considerable speculation. It was possible – so the theory went – for a practised eye to discern the approach of vessels while they were hundreds of miles away by careful study of minute changes that appeared in the atmosphere along the horizon; these were ‘meteors‘ that grew and shifted shape in ways that related directly to the number of ships sailing in company and their distance from the observer. But what these meteors looked like, and how they were to be interpreted, remained the carefully guarded secret of one man: Étienne Bottineau, a minor French engineer stationed on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
Bottineau successfully completed an eight-month course of observations – predicting the arrival of well over a hundred ships in ways that persuaded the local governor that nauscopie was a genuine discovery. But when he sailed for France to sell the idea to a sceptical goverment, he ran smack into the onset of the French Revolution. It didn’t help that the one man who believed in Bottineau was Jean Paul Marat, the fanatical architect of the Terror that cost 200,000 men their lives. Nor that the only written evidence of his discovery ended up in a packet of papers confiscated by France’s secret postal police, the Cabinet Noir. But is it possible to reconstruct the lost science of nauscopie, and show whether it was fact or fiction?
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